Shrunken Heads (1994) Review by RevTerry

When I die, cut off my head and shrink it. I have been thinking about this. I originally wanted to be buried, unmarked, in a field somewhere to get my rot on like nature intended, but I guess that's illegal in most places, and I wouldn't want to get any loyal compadres in trouble posthumously. As a plan b, I thought someone could just burn my dead ass. I'll take up little to no space, and I enjoy a good fire. That scenario led to imagining a piece of me preserved in a jar for eternity, and subsequently, the chance that I could end up on a shelf next to my favorite movies made me want to fit the motif a little better. It could also be that vases are lame, even when they have dead people dust in them. Either way, I've decided--shrink my fucking head when I conk out for good. Can a blog post count as a binding will and testament? I once saw a few authentic shrunken heads at the Ripley's Believe It Or Not museum as a kid. They were less the creepy, mystic artifact I had envisioned, more like a rabbit's foot with a mean mug. From what I understand, after you have chopped my dome piece off and disposed of the leftovers, you poke some holes and boil it--or something. I don't actually know, maybe find a professional when the time comes. That way, my loved ones can keep me in the family room on a shelf between horror and sci-fi, on a bed stand or maybe even take me for trips. I could hang on a rear view mirror or be carried around in a purse. Friends can take pictures of me at coffee houses and waterfalls for my Instagram like a celebrity's cat. For the first few months, any time someone gives their condolences, the keeper of my head can whip me out so those fake bastards can say it to my face. If at a point, nobody wants my free range nut, throw me in the toy aisle at Ross or a random hotel drawer like I'm a Gideon bible, letting fate take its course. That is unless I'm still able to talk like in Shrunken Heads (1994).
Vinnie (A.J. Damato) and his crew of angry knock-off Firebirds are a nuisance in the local community. When they are not committing overcomplicated acts of larceny, they make difficult the lives of the suspiciously younger looking teens on the block. Seemingly, none more so than hardworking Tommy Larson (Aeryk Egan) and his two homies/fellow DC comic book fans, the chocolate-addicted ginger Bill (Bo Sharon) and recent transplant Fredrick "you can call me Freddie" Thompson (Darris Love). Their conflict comes to a drastic head when Tommy openly snitches out the vintage looking thugs to the local police. The arrest catches the attention of Vinnie's boss the city's criminal overlord Big Moe (Meg Foster), and an order is issued to have the three kids kidnapped. That goes over easy enough until the kids escape the room they are locked in at bad-guy H.Q. and get away with some incriminating documents (the office full of evidence is a great place to keep prisoners). Big Moe blames Vinnie for the whole botched ordeal and sends him out with a shotgun to take care of it  (kill some minors). Reluctantly, Vinnie follows through and lays waste to the kids in the middle of a street somewhere. Upon hearing of the tragedy, the local newspaper-stand owner/retired cop/necromancer (Julius Harris), who had mentored the now dead boys, immediately decides some spooky vengeance is in order. So with some help from Tommy's new girlfriend Sally (Rebecca Herbst), he gathers the corpses after the funeral. Then, at a shack somewhere, the two cut up the cadavers--and in a ritual that's two parts movie voodoo and one part reanimator super science, bring them back to life as floating malformed heads. Equipped with a random array of powers, the three disembodied dome pieces commence to dispensing justice throughout New York, all while looking like some ugly-ass balloons without a string. The dead kids seem to dig it though, which is cool because I think they are stuck like that forever.  Also, they sometimes turn people into community service zombies that do shit like pick up trash and clean up graffiti.
To borrow a term of endearment from the vice principal at my first high school, Shrunken Heads (1994) is an “ungrounded odd duck with no place in the world.” A flamboyant, juvenile tale of grim revenge, it's as if the Puppet Master series had adopted the abandoned love baby of The Crow and The Sandlot, raising it into its early teens on a steady diet of Cheese Wiz and paint chips. It's a live-action cartoon that lives in its own reality, with loose logic and no clear cut motive. Unconfined, the story is set in a fictional era, detailed by a pseudo-nostalgic mix of Saturday morning heroes and coming of age tropes. The murderous gang of Jr wise guys is a malt and cigarette flavored blend of both groups from The Outsiders (1983) and the psychopathic Kiefer Sutherland from Stand by Me (1986). Their repertoire of mischief includes boosting car tires like it's the 50s, while a kid dressed in 70s attire captures the scene with a 90s tape recorder. It's not a thinking movie--best to just succumb to bubbly madness and come to peace with nothing making sense--at least not in a traditional fashion. There is always something off about it, like you missed part of the joke but can easily laugh anyway, albeit nervously. The ever-present sense of chaos, obtuse character choices, and the anachronisms are all part of the unexpected entertainment. It introduces itself as a juvenile fantasy and serves up an undead revenge tale with dark comedic delivery while acting as if that is the status quo. With inexplicable innocence, the whole thing is a special kind of demented wrapped in happy-go-lucky fluff.  While it's technically built around something morbid, it is somehow never mean spirited in the slightest. As if unaware of unsettling details and implications of its premise, the tale about floating, severed, reanimated thirteen-year-old heads is played off as a comic book hero origin story. Sometimes it's a full-on kids movie, but the kind we only saw in the 90s going straight to tape, far removed from Disney's vetting and filter. Starting out squeaky clean and with several "cute" moments, it doesn't have a swear word until twenty minutes in, then it slips out distressing content just as easily as the occasional “shit.” By the time we get to floating heads, it is hard to determine who exactly this film is for--I assume just Richard Elfman, some 90s latchkey pre-teens with a Blockbuster card and me.
The movie represents a collision of niche worlds and may come with some predisposed enjoyment on my part. Both the Elfman and Band families have been instrumental in making me the upstanding, well rounded (extremely popular) individual I am today, and the novelty of the collaboration is enough to win me over. To be all the way straight, I'm just glad it exists. While it's not the masterpiece of strange I would have imagined, it's thoroughly entertaining and utterly confusing. As it's directed by an original Mystic Knight of the Oingo Boingo, it's a tad unfortunate that more of that particular camp doesn't bleed through; however, it's definitely present. Those familiar with the Full Moon filmography will recognize many of the calling cards. It is built from the same resource pool and has the usual centerpiece of bite-sized lovingly crafted creature effects (etc.). In this case, however, Elfman's warm signature brand of weirdness brings the familiar parts to life in a unique fashion with added enthusiasm. In a way, it feels more complete or natural, as if it makes perfect sense to somebody, somewhere. Just as left field as any other Full Moon miniature monster fest, the gags are more alien than awkward, if that makes sense. I personally enjoy the fuck out of ninety percent of Full Moon’s catalog, so I wouldn't say it was better, just satisfying in a different way while using a lot of the same pieces. It captures the spirit of those Prehysteria! movies that I rented over and over as a child, with a morbid filter that I can still appreciate now. The marriage is inconsistent, but when the overlap is just right, it's something like a coked out Tim Burton's low budget answer to Power Rangers.
Elfman makes great use of the frugal stage play set dressing by embracing an unrealistic presentation style. Adorned in shadows, exaggerated angles, and colorful tones, the shots are reminiscent of the eccentric noir made popular by the Burton Batman films. It's not an uncommon theme choice, especially for the period, but the partnering subject matter and handling are twisted enough to make it stand out. The film’s on-screen magic combines cheese ball special effects with well crafted but exaggerated practical work. It's not Full Moon’s best in this category by a long shot, as its most memorable “creature” moments are the accidental byproduct of its comedic bad cut paste effects. Instead of puppets, the titular heroes are (usually) the young actor's real faces painted up like zombies and superimposed into each scene. It reminds me of something you might find on intentionally irrelevant current comedy shows today, like Tim and Eric or The Mighty Boosh designed to give you the uncomfortable willies. Aside from some swearing, it's in the PG rating range, although that includes some extra guidance for the decapitation I guess and a scene where one of the heads awkwardly motorboats his school crush. The director brings along his brother Danny Elfman for the main theme while the other Band sibling Richard scores the rest of the film.
The project marked Richard Elfman's return to filmmaking following the cult classic Forbidden Zone fourteen years prior. It was produced from a script by Matthew Bright and a concept by Charles Band. As a writer, Bright had previously worked with Elfman on Forbidden Zone (1980) and would shortly start work on Freeway (1996), where he would direct as well. Marking a first for Band’s Full Moon Entertainment, who until then was strictly a straight to tape distributor, the film saw a limited theatre run on release. The legendary Meg Foster plays the crime syndicate boss, in one of her most entertaining and bonkers performances. I'm not too sure what was going on, but it is undoubtedly a highlight of the film and invokes the playful pulp of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy film with a hint of John Waters. Among some familiar faces is the talented Julius Harris in his last film appearance as Mr. Sumatra. Everything Harris says sounds intense and wise despite his lines being gibberish with some seriously shaky moral ground. The protagonists are children and do the best with willfully over the top dialogue. I assume there were also some interesting filming situations (being floating painted up faces for half the film). I don't mean horror movie-like shaved adults in high school either, real-life young teens, so the fact that they don't get unbearably annoying gets a thumbs up from me. Another Elfman, Richard’s son Bodhi makes a zombiefied cameo as "Booger" because nepotism is not a bad thing if you're an Elfman. The more, the better as far as I'm concerned. I get the feeling holiday get-togethers are some next-level shit in that clan.
Shrunken Heads is a carefree block party between the neighborhoods of peculiar concepts and familiar themes, where sometimes children get their heads chopped off. It doesn't have any peers, but the iconic qualities of its combined DNA are evident in the silly madness. It often feels like a kids movie, though there's a good chance it is too bizarre for parental approval, and while it's pretty fucked up if you think about it too much, it's not really a horror movie. Even if I can't explain it or show the other grown-ups, it has an inappropriately authentic soul I can get down with. Plus, it only strengthens my new resolve to have my head shrunken when I bite the big one. I just need someone healthy enough to preside over the process when the time comes. I couldn't find any professional services for it on Google, so they should probably be handy with a hacksaw and a bucket as well.
1h 26min | 1994
Director: Richard Elfman
Writers: Matthew Bright, Charles Band


Review by:
RevTerry

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